Dance was featured in late pre-cinema and early film because it showed movement in human scale. Among the earliest films—nickelodeons, Mutoscopes, and other mechanical projections—are dozens of studio films produced by Thomas Edison showing social or musical-comedy dance performances, ranging from Annabelle (Moore) (1878–1961) twirling her skirts, in imitation of another dancer of the period, Loie Fuller (1862–1928), in Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894) to the Cake Walk series (1897–1903). Edison also filmed well-known vaudeville stars, such as Dave Montgomery and Fred Stone (who played the Tin Man and the Scarecrow in the 1903 Broadway musical version of The Wizard of Oz ), as examples of eccentric dance. Early narrative films set the pattern for using social dance to indicate period or social class. The first full-length extant films to feature dancers were both made in 1915: The Whirl of Life , starring and based on the lives of the ballroom dancers Irene (1893–1964) and Vernon Castle (1887–1918), integrated their specialty, the Castle walk, into the plot. The Dumb Girl of Portici , Lois Weber's version of the opera Maisannello , or La Muette di Portici , starring the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881–1931), did the same with ballet.

In the 1920s feature films frequently used social dance to depict chronology. Present tense or contemporary

Fayard and Harold Nicholas in Sun Valley Serenade (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941).
scenes were signaled by fast couple dances such as the Charleston or black bottom performed by dissolute youths. Films starring "It" girl Clara Bow (1905–1965) were enormously popular, and Our Dancing Daughters (1928) was the film that made Joan Crawford (1904–1977) a star. Slower contemporary social dances were used to show romantic situations. Dance as mise-en-scène was expanded to accommodate experiments with narrative structure. The past was signaled with historical movement, from the Denishawn troupe performing on the Babylon steps in Intolerance , to social dances from the minuet to the waltz. Directors relied on dance to signal shifts caused by their use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and dream sequences. The contemporary, Amazon, and classical sequences in Man, Woman, Marriage (1921), staged by Marion Morgan, are memorable examples of period dance as atmosphere. A famous scene is the dance in a dirigible, developed by Theodore Kosloff (1882–1956), LeRoy Prinz (1895–1983), and Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959), in DeMille's Madam Satan (1930).

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